It is not much of an exaggeration to say that I’ve been playing video games since the beginning. I was one of those kids who spent tons of time in arcades throwing away quarter after quarter, and our family owned the very first commercial home video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972. After that, I had an Atari 2600, a Commodore 64, and then moved onto PC games.
I recently was digging through a collection of those old PC games, and a few fondly-remembered titles got me thinking: what are my favorite video games of all time? There have been so many excellent games over the years that it is difficult to come up with a definitive list, but a number of titles stood out from the others.
I figured: why not write a blog post about them? My list literally spans thirty years of gaming, running from early Commodore 64 games to titles released this very year. It is somewhat fascinating, looking back, to see how far games have come in that period of time — and how some things have been lost along the way.
The titles are presented in no particular order, other than to provide some variety in the descriptions. One note: these are my favorite games, not a list of what I would call the “greatest games of all time,” so don’t write me and ask, “Why didn’t you include game X?” I probably haven’t played it, that’s why! However, please feel free to mention your own favorites in the comments.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). In my recollection, video games based on superheroes tend to be awful. This is often related to their close ties to movie releases, forcing developers to throw something together on an accelerated schedule. Even without tie-ins, such games can suck; the 1999 Superman game for N64 is generally regarded as one of the worst video games of all time — period.
When I heard of Batman: Arkham Asylum, I have to admit that I had pretty low expectations. Boy, was I wrong!
The gamer plays Batman from a 3rd-person perspective on one of the worst nights of his life, as the Joker and Harley Quinn release Arkham Asylum’s inmates in what appears at first to be a random act of carnage. Nothing is ever simple when the Joker’s involved, however, and there is more at stake than first appears. To save the day, Batman will have to delve deep into the bowels and history of the Asylum, and fight some of his most dangerous enemies.
The story is excellent, scripted by the masterful Paul Dini, writer of Batman: The Animated Series. Batman is voiced by the series actor Kevin Conroy, and the Joker is voiced by the sublime Mark Hamill, continuing his role from the series as well.
The story would be meaningless, however, without good gameplay, and the gameplay in Arkham Asylum is amazing. A free-flow combat system allows the player to chain a variety of increasingly devastating attacks between multiple enemies, and it works so easily that it feels natural. It really is a system of the “easy to learn, difficult to master” type, and I found myself trying more and more complicated moves on enemies just for the damn fun of it.
The best combat scenarios, however, are those in which stealth are required. When facing multiple gun-toting goons in a large room, Batman can use a variety of techniques to pick them off one at a time. The goons get increasingly hysterical as they are eliminated, and it is this perhaps more than anything else that makes the player feel like the dark knight! A collection of cool gadgets adds to the effect, and most of them can be used in combat, as well.
This is a game that suits replay: in fact, I have played it through three times! The open-ended nature of the combat system rewards new strategies and techniques. If the story gets tiresome and you just want to kick the crap out of some baddies, a collection of challenge levels allows you to focus on combat highlights.
Arkham Asylum was followed in 2011 by Batman: Arkham City, which is arguably an even better game with a huge sandbox world to bop around. I’ve played that one twice through as well, though my heart is still with the original dark, claustrophobic and decaying asylum.
SEAL Team (1993). Action war simulations such as the Battlefield and Modern Warfare series of games have been stunningly popular in recent years, and are admittedly a lot of fun. They are, however, as far from a realistic depiction of actual warfare as one can get — in real war, you don’t get to heal by hiding behind cover for a few seconds!
In 1993, one game actually tried to realistically convey military actions, focusing on the actions of the Navy SEALs during the Vietnam War: Electronic Arts’ SEAL Team.
Designed, as I recall, with input from the Navy SEAL Museum as well as a former Navy SEAL, this game provides a detailed and unromantic view of special forces operations. From a crew of SEALs, the player directs 4-man teams through 80 missions in the Mekong Delta, controlling the point man of each team and giving directions to the other members. The player is responsible for choosing the loadout of the team (I found myself lazily choosing the M79 any chance I got), making sure that each member gets combat experience, and keeping enough members alive to operate to the end of the war.
Does crawling slowly along the jungle floor for an hour of game time sound like fun? It actually is! Missions in SEAL Team require caution and stealth. Carelessly initiated firefights either lead quickly to death (if you don’t hit the deck immediately) or devolve into stagnant protracted battles as you and your enemies shoot at each other futilely from cover (which is why the M79 was so helpful).
Missions have a large amount of variety. You can go on simple patrols, perform ambushes, capture enemy officers, rescue POWs, and probably a bunch of other things I’ve forgotten. The missions often build off of one another. My favorite twist: after assassinating a Vietcong leader in one mission, you follow-up on the next mission by ambushing his funeral and killing as many high-level leaders you can!
Unlike any games before it (and few after it), you rely heavily on support services to accomplish your mission. When pinned down in a firefight, you can call in helicopter, gunboat or fighter support to devastate your enemies. When inserting into an area via helicopter or patrol boat, you can choose to perform “false insertions” to throw off any enemy patrols who may be watching.
SEAL Team is a thinking person’s shooter: quick reflexes are not enough to achieve victory. Patience, planning, and a ridiculous amount of caution are necessary to survive. I have yet to encounter another game that immersed me as deeply into the reality of war as SEAL Team did.
Bioshock Infinite (2013). The original Bioshock, developed by Irrational Games, came out in 2007. It was not only a fun and beautiful game, but also an intelligent one, using an undersea city as a commentary on Ayn Rand’s vision of an objectivist society and the limitations inherent in it. The second Bioshock was produced by a different studio and, although it was a fun game, it felt somewhat of a retread of the first.
When Bioshock Infinite came out this year, again developed by Irrational Games, it seemed like it might just be more of the same, albeit in a dramatically different world above the clouds. This turned out to be very, very wrong, as those who have played the game know well.
The year is 1912. The player controls Booker DeWitt, a drunken run-down former soldier and Pinkerton agent, who has been sent to the mysterious city of Columbia to retrieve a young woman named Elizabeth. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt,” reads a cryptic message given to DeWitt. Columbia is a miraculous city floating high in the clouds, held aloft by mysterious quantum mechanical forces. It is absolutely beautiful, but corrupt, founded by the ultra-nationalistic, racist, and fundamentalist fanatic Zachariah Comstock.
DeWitt initially maintains a low profile in Columbia, but right away strange things happen and things don’t feel quite right. It seems that the entire city has been put on guard against a “false prophet” whose description strikingly matches DeWitt. He soon finds himself fighting — and killing — for his life as he works his way towards the tower prison in which Elizabeth is held.
Elizabeth is known as “The Lamb” and is prophecised to eventually lead the city and cleanse the corrupt world below. She is as much feared as loved, and possesses the power to open tears in space and time, an ability that allows her to summon material aid to Booker in combat.
The two of them fight their way across the city attempting to find freedom. Along the way, they are pursued by the massive and invulnerable robotic Songbird, a machine that has been built for the sole purpose of keeping Elizabeth trapped. For the first half of the game, Bioshock Infinite plays as a rather standard first-person shooter with a good dose of political commentary. At the start of the second half, however, a huge plot twist changes the nature of the story dramatically, and it becomes remarkably thoughtful, even philosophical.
There is a really detailed, intricate, and tragic story hidden within Columbia, and the city’s secrets are only revealed piecemeal through discovered recordings as the game progresses. The ending is, in my opinion, awe-inspiring and haunting: I found myself thinking about it, and troubled by it, for days after finishing the game. Bioshock Infinite dares to ask some surprisingly deep questions, and does so in the midst of a beautiful, entertaining first-person shooter.
Ultima V (1988). The Ultima series of video games almost single-handedly created the genre of fantasy role-playing video games. Created and developed through most of the series by “Lord British” aka Richard Garriott, each game in the series introduced new innovations that improved the story, gameplay, and immersion in a fantasy world.
Ultimas I-III were more or less straightforward fantasy games, in which the player leads an adventurer (or a party, by Ultima III) against an evil threatening the land. Ultima IV took a daring new path and possessed no evil threat: instead, the player takes on the challenge of becoming the most good and noble hero in the land — the Avatar! There are still monsters to fight and quests to complete, but the player’s biggest challenge is figuring out how to stay true to the Eight Virtues — Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility — and the Three Principles of Truth, Love, and Courage. At the end of the game, the player takes his party of adventurers deep into the deadly dungeon known as The Abyss in order to recover the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.
Ultima IV‘s plot is absolutely unique — no other adventure game has come close — but my favorite of the series is its sequel, Ultima V. Returning to the fantasy world of Britannia after an extended absence, the Avatar finds the land in disarray. After the recovery of the Codex from the Abyss, the underworld was wracked with a tremendous cataclysm that created an entire new vast network of caverns known as the Underworld. Lord British went to explore this new region but has disappeared, captured by a trio of powerful and evil figures known only as the Shadowlords. Lord Blackthorn, left to rule Britannia in British’s stead, has become corrupted by the Shadowlords and now governs as a tyrant. The Avatar must not only venture deep into the Underworld to rescue Lord British but must also learn the secret of the Shadowlords in order to defeat them.
At the time, Ultima V was the most fully-realized digital fantasy world ever constructed. You could have conversations with the inhabitants, purchase goods and services, hire a variety of adventurers to join your party, and interact with most of the elements in the environment, including ticking clocks. Townsfolk would move around town doing their business, following a cycle of day and night (including sleeping). On certain phases of the moon, the Shadowlords would possess and twist certain towns, making the villagers unfriendly and unhelpful.
The game also had some of the first really compelling scripted events of any game that I’ve ever played. (Mild spoiler follows.) My favorite event — one that took my breath away — occurred when the Avatar attempts to break into the Castle of Lord Blackthorn to reclaim Lord British’s crown. Captured by the guards, I ended up waiting for a few minutes in a dungeon cell before Blackthorn himself appeared to talk with me. He pulled one of my companions from the cell and put him on a pendulum blade torture machine, threatening to kill him unless I reveal the secret password to enter one of the protected shrines of Virtue! This takes place in real time! Even after giving the password, Blackthorn killed my companion anyway, leaving me alone in my cell to ponder for another few minutes. At this point, a prisoner in a neighboring cell, a barbarian named Gorn revealed that he knew of a secret way to escape the Castle, requiring perfect timing to avoid the patrolling guards. In a nail-biting sequence of events, Gorn lead us out of the Castle to freedom, becoming a new member of the party in the process.
The exploration of the Underworld is wonderfully handled, too. As part of the game packaging, you are provided with fragments of the exploration diary of Lord British, describing where they traveled. You must follow these rough written directions through the Underworld to find the resting place of Lord British’s staff; the scene really gave me a feeling of delving into the dangerous unknown.
A fan remake of Ultima V, titled Lazarus, was released a few years ago based on the Dungeon Siege engine. I was too busy to complete it when it came out but will definitely be going back soon to relive the Ultima experience.
Half-Life (1998). In the broadest sense, the plot of the first-person shooter Half-Life is quite clichéd: secret government laboratory performs experiment that opens a doorway to another dimension, allowing horrifying monsters to enter our world. In fact, it is the plot of an older game further down the list here! Half-Life, however, takes that tired idea and executes it in such a masterful way that it is utterly unique, compelling — and fun!
The gamer takes the role of Gordon Freeman, a physicist working at the ultra-secretive Black Mesa Research Facility, a sprawling labyrinthine underground complex situated in New Mexico. In a brilliant move, we spend a significant amount of time in what could be considered the game’s prologue traveling to work by tram, catching glimpses of the inner workings of the facility along the way. When Gordon tests an unusual specimen passed to his research group, a “resonance cascade” begins, ripping a passage into the border dimension of Xen and allowing the creatures of Xen to invade.
Half-Life changed the nature of gaming by telling its story through scripted events (events that play out in game) instead of in cutscenes. This adds to the immersion, as Gordon stumbles across people being dragged into ventilation ducts, witnesses fights between military men and invulnerable juggernauts, and interacts with scientists and security guards in his attempt to survive.
We never hear Gordon speak and never see him (as it is a first-person shooter), but he develops a personality anyway, as he evolves over the course of the game from struggling survivor to bad-assed bane and terror of both aliens and government alike. (In the sequel, he evolves even further to an almost messiah-like figure.)
The enemies themselves are wonderfully alien and horrific, from parasitic “head crabs” to lurking, flesh-eating “barnacles” to… to… well, things that are pretty much indescribable.
The Black Mesa Facility is basically a character in its own right, revealing only hints of its varied projects and horrors as things proceed. And, over the course of the game, one catches glimpses of an incredibly mysterious figure: a man dressed in suit and tie, holding a briefcase, utterly indifferent to the chaos growing around him. Now, he is known as the “g-man.”
Half-Life was followed by the amazing sequel Half-Life 2, which is widely considered the best first-person shooter of all time. It was expanded through 2 additional “episodes,” but a third promised episode failed to materialize, leaving the series paused on a cliff-hanger. Fans, including myself, now impatiently await either Half-Life 2 episode 3 or Half-Life 3…
Minecraft (2009). Do I need to explain much about Minecraft? First released in “alpha” form for PC in 2009 by designer Markus Persson, it exploded in popularity and has become a long-lasting, almost cultural, phenomenon, spawning toys, LEGO sets, and a yearly convention for fans.
So what is Minecraft about? Perhaps the best description is the one from the official site:
Minecraft is a game about breaking and placing blocks. At first, people built structures to protect against nocturnal monsters, but as the game grew players worked together to create wonderful, imaginative things.
From that simple concept comes so many wonderful possibilities! The player explores a randomly-generated world in first person, seeking rarer and rarer items and treasures and building more and more elaborate structures.
One can simply explore and create or can adventure, delving into deep caverns and dungeons and eventually to the Nether (essentially Hell) and beyond! Weapons and tools can be crafted, animals can be domesticated, crops can be grown, and electronic circuits can be built to accomplish a variety of tasks. Monsters can be fought, including one of the most terrifying creations in all of gaming, the creeper: a silent stalker that sneaks up to you and blows itself up when in range.
This open-ended nature of the game is what makes it such a phenomenon. I personally have only played the game to “The End” — the name of a dimension where one can fight a dragon — and have found it much more fun to see what sort of resources I can find and what sort of world I can build.
The game is still in development; as of this writing, version 1.6 has just come out, which includes horses to tame and ride. “Mods” to the game have added new possibilities, allowing players to make even more exotic creations, including airplanes!
Adventure Construction Set (1984). Modern graphics and 3-D engines have revolutionized video games and made them more realistic and immersive than one could have imagined even 10 years earlier. At the same time, we’ve lost something, too. Making a quality game in general requires much more effort and time than most people can afford, putting game design out of the reach of casual gamers.
Back in the 80s, however, a number of games came out that allowed you to create your own games with a surprising amount of complexity. The best of these, in my opinion, was Stuart Smith’s Adventure Construction Set, which allowed a user to create his or her own science fiction, fantasy, or espionage adventures — or even more!
As the name implies, the Adventure Construction Set (ACS) is a complete adventure building kit, allowing you to design wilderness region, interior/dungeon regions, plot scripted events, design items/obstacles/scenery/monsters, design graphics, and choose sound effects. It came with three predesigned “palettes” of material for sci-fi, fantasy or espionage themed games, but the real joy was the ability to take those palettes and tweak them dramatically.
To demonstrate this capability, Stuart Smith included one full and absolutely unique adventure with the set: Rivers of Light, a fantasy adventure set in ancient Mesopotamia and based on the epic of Gilgamesh! Like Gilgamesh, the player is on a quest for immortality that stretches across the ancient near East from Babylon to Egypt and beyond. I don’t know any other game that has used this era of history for inspiration, or had such an unusual quest goal.
In an interesting anticipation of future games with “procedurally generated” maps (such as Minecraft), ACS could generate random adventures to play. These adventures were usually pretty random and meaningless, but could stretch the replay value of the game substantially.
I managed to finish one complete adventure with the ACS, a silly spy-themed battle with the imaginatively-named Bond-esque villain “Dr. Uzi.” I actually finished about 50% of an even more ambitious sequel before new technology drew my attention elsewhere.
Playing games can be fun; creating games can be fun and intellectually stimulating. The Adventure Construction Set really made me think about how to tell a story and make it fun and fair to play. I’ve often thought about trying to code my own version of the ACS on modern machines, if I only had the time…
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000). There have been many fantasy role-playing video games over the years, and many of them based on Dungeons & Dragons, but Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn really transformed the whole genre for the better. A compelling story, an immersive setting and strong character development made it feel leaps and bounds ahead of everything that came before… including the first game in the Baldur’s Gate series!
In the first game, the player discovers that he is a child of Bhaal, the God of Murder, and possesses part of the demon god’s soul within him. Assembling a group of adventurers, the team defeats Saverok, another child of Bhaal, who seeks to become the new Lord of Murder.
At the start of the second game, the hero and several of his companions have been captured by a wizard named Jon Irenicus. Irenicus seeks to extract the soul of the character in his own attempt at godhood. The hero and his friends escape, and what follows is an extended game of cat and mouse as each side attempts to defeat or capture the other.
This may sound rather standard fantasy fare, but the devil is in the details. The hero’s relationship with his companions develops as the game progresses, including the possibility of romance. The gameplay is also phenomenal and challenging, based on 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. Finally, the game is simply beautiful, as the screenshot below shows.
This was one of the first RPGs that really allowed the player to control his own fate; this would continue in the third game in the trilogy, Throne of Bhaal, where the player takes himself to the verge of godhood. This idea of player choice would become a guiding principle for the designing company Bioware, which later went on to create such remarkable games as Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, and Mass Effect 2 (though I leave out Mass Effect 3).
Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995). In 1995, 1st-person shooters (FPSs) were still quite new and of very mixed quality. Even the ones that were incredibly fun were missing something important: a story. Dark Forces changed that for me, showing that a game filled with incredible carnage could still give a plot.
Set in the Star Wars universe just before the destruction of the Death Star and then sometime before the fall of the Empire, the game follows the exploits of Kyle Katarn, a mercenary for the Rebel Alliance, as he works to uncover and stop a new sinister plot by Imperial forces. His efforts will take him across “a galaxy far far away” to a variety of exotic locations, and will cause him to clash with a number of powerful foes, including Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt!
Dark Forces used a completely new game engine that improved vastly upon the features of its groundbreaking predecessor, Doom. In Dark Forces, it is possible to look in all directions, including up and down, a feature not present in Doom. Furthermore, Dark Forces allows for truly three-dimensional motion with different floors on top of one another to explore. Jumping, swimming and ducking were also new innovations. The game furthermore features puzzles as well as action.
But most impressive of all was the beautiful scenery, level design, weapons, and villains that makes you really feel like you’re in a Star Wars movie!
I still remember the first time I completed Dark Forces. A friend of mine was watching over my shoulder, and as I battled the final villain we were both screaming in panic as missiles and blaster shots rained down around me. It was an impressive game, and I loved every minute of it.
Dark Forces ends with Vader observing of Katarn that “the Force is strong with this one.” This statement would lead naturally into two sequels, Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight, and Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast, which allow the player the thrill of being a wielding a lightsaber and engaging in duels. The sequels are fun, but for me nothing beats the thrill of that first foray into the Star Wars universe.
Portal (2007). It is hard to imagine, looking back, that Portal was released as a “bonus” feature of Half-Life 2: episode 2, in The Orange Box release, along with Team Fortress 2. Portal was immediately praised as the best part of the box, however, and this is especially noteworthy since the other two pieces are awesome in and of themselves.
In the first-person puzzle game Portal, you play the silent woman Chell, who awakens in a sprawling and mysterious underground research complex and is guided through a series of tests by the disembodied voice of GLaDOS. The tests center around the use of the Portal Gun, which can open an interdimensional portal between two points in space, as pictured below. This gun can be used to solve puzzles by an ingenious use of physics: falling through a portal in the floor can be used to launch oneself long distances horizontally through space via a complementary portal in the wall.
As the game goes on, the tests get more difficult and dangerous, despite the promises of GLaDOS of cake at the end of the session. (Scrawled messages in the test chambers warn that “The cake is a lie,” a phrase now famous thanks to Portal.)
Portal‘s gameplay is unique and utterly compelling. GLaDOS, the rogue A.I. directing you through the test chambers, is a wonderful character who ranks as one of the best video game villains of all time (and the voice acting by Ellen McLain is perfect). The entire game is made more entertaining by lots of dark humor, from the sweetly-talking gun turrets trying to kill you to GLaDOS’ increasingly abusive messages to you (“All your other friends couldn’t come either because you don’t have any other friends. Because of how unlikable you are.”). Every little thing about the game is perfect, including the closing credits song “Still Alive” written by Jonathan Coulton.
The original Portal is a relatively short game, perhaps only 2-3 hours of gameplay. It’s success spawned a much longer and more elaborate sequel Portal 2 that introduced more game elements, more characters, and even more dark and hilarious humor. Nothing can ever quite capture the surprise and delight of the original game, however!
Doom (1993). Doom is the mother-of-all first person shooter games, even though it wasn’t the first of them! The game that sparked the FPS era was Wolfenstein 3D, which was inspired by the great Castle Wolfenstein games of the 1980s. Following the success of Wolfenstein 3D, its creators at id Software went for an even more ambitious and compelling shoot ’em up, namely Doom.
Doom has very little setup by way of story. Secret teleportation experiments being enacted between the Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos go awry, resulting in Deimos disappearing entirely and demons from Hell pouring out of the gate on Phobos. The only human survivor is a single space marine, the player, who then shoots his way through the base and, eventually, through Hell itself.
Gameplay is straightforward and intense: the player shoots his way through multiple levels of evil zombies, imps, cacodemons, demons, spectres, and more, using a variety of weapons from a simple pistol to a shotgun to a rocket launcher to a plasma rifle to the BFG (“Big F%&king Gun”). There is no real puzzle aspect to the game, aside from collecting keys to open locked doors and the occasional trap room which spills hordes of monsters on you unexpectedly.
This simplicity is what makes Doom so much damn fun, though! “If it moves, shoot it” is your mantra for survival, and the result is pure action and carnage.
The game was attacked by many critics for its “excessive” gore and Satanic undertones, though ironically both of these made the game much more “human friendly” than others that would follow. You are literally blowing up the spawn of Hell in this game, giving it an unambiguously anti-demon view!
Doom also used a “shareware” marketing plan that was also adopted from Wolfenstein. You could pay a small amount of money (or download for free) the first episode of the game, and then choose to pay the full price for the remaining two episodes. I was one of those that happily forked out the extra money once I had battled my way through Phobos.
The huge success of the game spawned one immediate sequel: Doom II: Hell on Earth, and an entirely revamped reboot of the series, Doom 3, appeared in 2004. A Doom 4 is in the works as well, though it has reportedly been plagued by production problems.
Even though FPS games have come a long way, I still think there’s nothing more satisfying than firing a shotgun from the original Doom!
Elite (1984). Ever since the Millenium Falcon graced the big screen in Star Wars, gamers have dreamed of being a free-range space trader and smuggler, jumping from world to world in the attempt to make a few credits and to upgrade your ship with better weapons, engines, and shields. Elite, from 1984, was one of the first games to really make this dream feel like a reality.
You start the game at a space station with 100 credits to spend and a basic trading ship called the Cobra Mark III. From there, you can fly wherever you please, with a huge number of options: 256 star systems in each of 8 galaxies. There are limits, however, in that your ship only has a limited range before refueling and that some systems are extremely dangerous, containing pirates or the hostile Thargoid aliens.
Money can be made by straightforward trade — buy low on one world and sell high on another — or by smuggling, bounty hunting, asteroid mining, or performing military missions. The game gives you a lot of freedom to make your fortune as you like.
All this trading by itself would be boring without a good space combat system, and Elite delivers on this, having nail-biting space dogfights with pirates, aliens or (if you’re a smuggler) law enforcement. From what I recall, however, the most dangerous activity in the early part of the game is successfully docking with your destination space station! The station rotates in place, ala the station in 2001, and you must maneuver your ship manually to match this rotation and simultaneously fly into the docking bay. It is both a genuine accomplishment and a sigh of relief later in the game when you can afford the automatic docking system.
This might seem like a game flaw but just added to the feeling of realism in the game, which tends to be very unforgiving of stupid player mistakes. Travel to a world with high pirate activity without a well-armed ship and you will certainly pay the price for your actions!
Elite really stood out for me at the time due to its combination of action (in space fights) and thinking (in developing a good sustainable financial scheme), as well as its open-ended nature. There is no major plot or goal in Elite, other than to explore, profit and be free!
Like many of the other games on this list, Elite has spawned multiple sequels. Most recently, a Kickstarter campaign raised an astounding 1.5 million pounds at the beginning of 2013 to create Elite: Dangerous, which will revamp all the previous features of the game and even include a multiplayer option so that you can traverse the galaxy with friends.
Beyond Good and Evil (2003). In hindsight, it is perhaps not surprising that Beyond Good and Evil was a commercial failure on its first release. It is such a unique game that I imagine that marketers struggled to explain what makes it so special, and gamers probably scratched their heads in confusion at first glance. This game of science fiction investigative journalism and conservation on a unique alien world is nevertheless regarded as one of the best games of all time by many and has earned a cult following, including me.
In third-person perspective, the player controls Jade, a woman who co-manages an orphanage for children who have lost their parents thanks to the DomZ, an alien race that has besieged the planet. As the game begins, the orphanage’s defense systems begin to fail due to lack of payment, and Jade must take on a variety of odd jobs to pay the bills and keep the children protected.
This may sound dull, but it is a really compelling game. Jade’s most powerful weapon is a camera, and she takes an assignment to photograph the rare animal species of the planet Hillys for a local science museum. As the game progresses, she begins to suspect that the Alpha Sections, a group ostensibly protecting the planet from the DomZ, are in fact in league with them, and she takes her camera to uncover the truth.
Beyond Good and Evil is part stealth, part melee combat, part racing, and part puzzle game. The pieces all come together seamlessly in a setting that is unique, beautiful and whimsical. Many of the other inhabitants, such as Jade’s friend Pey’j, are anthropomorphic animals that add a soft touch to rather serious situations. I personally found the game rather emotionally engaging: very early on, I found myself really caring about Jade, her friends and the world of Hillys.
I don’t know of many games that make good photography such an important part of victory (though there is another on this list). Beyond Good and Evil is unique in its emphasis on victory through revealing the truth rather than through simple combat.
Even though the original game was initially a commercial failure, a sequel is in the works and will hopefully be released on the next generation of game consoles.
The Lurking Horror (1987). In the early days of computers with limited memories and graphics capabilities, the most sophisticated games available were text adventures, in which the player explored and solved puzzles in fantastic worlds entirely through a text command interface and feedback. The most famous of these adventures is Zork, though my favorite is Infocom‘s much later release, The Lurking Horror, a nightmare inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
The creators of The Lurking Horror were serious about trying to scare you, and you got your first scare just opening the box: a very realistic rubber centipede was included that was not listed on the box contents! I still remember jumping the first time I opened the damn thing.
The player takes the role of a student at G.U.E. Tech, an M.I.T.-like university. While working on a term paper late at night during a blizzard, the student finds that his work has been corrupted and overwritten by files from the Department of Alchemy. Setting off through the university’s underground tunnels in an attempt to salvage his work, the student soon finds himself up against a variety of sinister beings, both human and monstrous, and must solve a variety of puzzles in order to defeat the evil that is growing within the university.
I think adventure stands out for me against all the other quality Infocom games because of its horror theme. My favorite scene is the student’s visit to the Department of Alchemy, in which the attending professor attempts to make the student a sacrifice to the dark ones. Some quick thinking and perfect timing are required to avoid this horrific (albeit darkly comical) fate.
Text adventures died as a commercial product as computer graphics advanced, which is a bit of a tragedy: many of these games, such as A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, were really written as serious interactive novels. However, there is an active community of folks who continue to write and archive excellent interactive fiction (see, for instance, the Interactive Fiction Archive) and tools exist to make writing your own an easier task, such as Inform.
Dead Rising (2006). One of the difficult things about horror games is to make the player genuinely feel dread. I’m not talking about just getting a scare from something horrible jumping out at you, but the “slow burn” feeling that horrible things are happening that you can’t control. Dead Rising managed to unlock the secret to making me feel real fear in game, and for that I love it.
In Dead Rising, you play photojournalist Frank West, who takes a helicopter into Willamette, Colorado to get the exclusive story of why the entire city has devolved into violent chaos. Landing on the roof of the local shopping mall, Frank quickly learns that he has dropped into the heart of a zombie outbreak! Teaming up with other survivors, Frank must spend the next 72 hours staying alive and unraveling the mystery before his ride comes back to get him. Along the way, there will be many twists and turns, including a variety of psychopaths who have snapped — or been liberated — in the anarchy.
Frank spends his time entirely within the shopping mall, in an obvious nod to Dawn of the Dead. There are literally hundreds of zombies wandering about in any particular section, and any foray out of the safe zone is a nail-biting life-and-death race in which the player must be alert at all times. Fortunately, the mall is filled with resources to help: weapons from rifles to baseball bats to chainsaws, food products, and more.
What makes Dead Rising such a nerve-wracking game to play? First, there is a hard time limit: though you will not play 72 hours in real time, the clock is always ticking, and things will happen — usually bad things — whether you decide to intervene or not. Second, one of your major tasks in the game is seeking out and rescuing others trapped in the mall. This is the real genius of the game designers, in my opinion: I don’t worry so much about my own character, but each of these survivors is a unique individual with his or her own personality, and you can’t possibly save all of them. It is incredibly stressful to choose who lives and dies, and to try and save as many as you can. A very limited save option means that there isn’t much opportunity to reload a previous game and fix your mistakes.
In fact, I had to restart the game from the beginning from about halfway through it the first time I played! I had missed some crucial opportunities for weapons and allies that could not be undone. It pretty much goes without saying that I was even more nervous on the second play-through!
Another thing I loved about Dead Rising: it constantly makes you believe, “It couldn’t possibly get any worse than this!”, and then proves that you’re wrong! I found myself saying “Oh f%&k me!” more times than I can count during the course of the game.
Dead Rising 2 came out in 2010, and follows the same formula as the first game, though it follows the struggles of Chuck Greene, an extreme motorcyclist, as he tries to simultaneously survive a zombie outbreak in the casino town of Fortune City and find medicine to suppress the zombie infection in his daughter. It provides some new twists on the story and a new cast of demented villains to battle in the midst of the hungry dead. Dead Rising 3 has been announced as an exclusive to XBox One.
Archon: The Light and the Dark (1983). I spent a lot of time as a teenager playing this game with friends! Archon is, in essence, a live-action version of chess: you move your pieces on a conventional-looking chessboard, but when two pieces meet, they convene to a live-action battle map to see who actually wins the square.
Different pieces in the game have different powers and strengths, and each side has special pieces with unique abilities. On the dark side, there are Banshees who possess a damaging scream, basilisks that wield a petrifying gaze, and worse. On the light side, there are fast-moving unicorns, boulder-hurling stone golems, and more powerful beings. Battles are complicated by the colors of the squares, which can change during the game: the light side has the advantage on light squares, and dark on the dark.
Victory involves either eliminating all your opponent’s pieces or seizing control of the five “points of power” on the map.
A sequel to Archon, titled Archon II: Adept, came out in 1984, and I spent just as much time playing it as the original.
Archon lives on: it can be purchased as an iTunes app!
Bayonetta (2009). I almost didn’t play Bayonetta at all. The box art didn’t connect with me at all and I passed it by many times at my local Best Buy without another thought. One day, however, I ran out of new things to play, and in a “What the heck?” moment I decided I was in the mood for a third-person fighting game.
I was not disappointed!
In the game you play the titular Bayonetta, a witch who has awakened from a 500-year sleep with no memory of her past. She does remember her mission to kill angels, which she is required to do on a regular basis lest she be dragged into Hell. She beats them senseless with a combination of combat attacks, magical spells, shapeshifting, and hand-and-heel firearms.
Killing angels may seem like an awful and controversial premise for a game, but these are not kind, sweet, storybook angels: they are obnoxious, ruthless and grotesque pursuers of Order at all cost.
After Bayonetta is attacked and taunted by a fellow witch who seems to know her, she learns that the secrets of her past may be found in the European country of Vigrid. Traveling there, Bayonetta fights and slaughters her way through increasingly more powerful and titanic enemies and bosses.
It is these bosses that really make the game shine. The set-piece fights are against the Four Cardinal Virtues — Fortitudo, Tempermantia, Justicia and Sapientia — and each opponent is larger and stronger than the last. When I say “large,” I mean HUGE: the size of 10- or 20-story buildings! The battles take place with a combination of live action, quicktime events and cutscenes that are seamlessly stitched together into a chaotic whole.
The game features plenty of twists and turns and revelations, including no less than three false endings, and the fictional settings are incredibly beautiful and stylish. Bayonetta will fight her way not only through Vigrid, but also through Purgatory, Heaven and Hell in her quest for answers and to oppose the angels’ ironically diabolical plans.
Bayonetta herself as a character is somewhat of a sexist conundrum. On the one hand, she is the ultimate example of “fan service“: her hair serves both as her clothes as well as her major attack weapon, which means that the biggest attacks strip her temporarily naked! On the other hand, she is fiercely independent, powerful, and strong-willed. Her love interest in the game, a young man named Luka, clearly has no ability to tell her what to do. And Bayonetta herself grows terrifyingly strong as the game progresses: by the end of the game, those creatures that were major bosses become minor nuisances to be dealt with.
There aren’t that many games whose battles can instill a sense of awe in the player; Bayonetta is one of them. I’ve played it twice through and, as I write this, I suspect I’ll be going back again to enjoy its utterly insane titanic action. A sequel is scheduled to be released exclusively on the Wii U; if the reviews are good, I may very well get the new Wii just to play the game.
Alone in the Dark (1992). This was another game that I almost didn’t end up getting; I seem to recall hanging out in a gaming store with my mom of all people who pointed it out to me! Within ten minutes of starting the game, I was screaming in delightful terror, and was hooked.
Set in the 1930s, the player takes on the role of either Edward Carnby or Emily Hartwood as he/she investigates the haunted mansion of Derceto after dark. Soon after, zombies and savage beasts attack, and the player finds himself trapped in the damned abode. Carnby/Hartwood must navigate through the deadly chambers of the house, solving puzzles and battling monsters, in order to break the curse on the home and survive the night.
Alone in the Dark was one of the first games to employ full 3-D characters in the game, rendered against a fixed 2-D background. The fixed camera angle was used to great advantage in certain scenes: upon entering a pantry, the camera view shifted to an extreme closeup of the character from the ground, just as a zombie stalks up behind you!
The game, like The Lurking Horror mentioned above, is inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but draws more directly from the Lovecraft mythos. The puzzles are regularly challenging and often unforgiving, resulting in death if one takes a misstep. However, there are often clever tricks that can be used to avoid the most dangerous situations. In the very first scene, the player can block the two locations through which monsters enter, though this approach requires prior knowledge of what happens!
Two sequels, based on the same gaming engine, were released in 1993 and 1994. The second game was a damn hoot, in which Carnby squares off against undead pirates in order to save a little kidnapped girl; it also involves the mother-of-all-twists in a videogame! The third game was passable, but not noteworthy.
Sadly, the series was “rebooted” in 2001, vaulted into modern times and turned into a generic Resident Evil ripoff. A second reboot in 2008 was poorly received. It remains to be seen if the original charm of the 1930s-era Alone in the Dark can be resurrected…
Tomb Raider (1996). This one is almost an obvious choice, but I had to include it! “Featuring Lara Croft”, an acrobatic explorer, gunfighter and raider of tombs, Tomb Raider provides a wonderful mixture of exploration, puzzles and combat set in a beautiful underground world.
From a third-person perspective, the player controls Lara as she travels the globe, exploring a variety of underground caverns, tombs and cities. Along the way, she will climb along precarious cliffs, swim through underground rivers, battle enemies both human and otherwise, and find treasures.
The event that is indelibly burned into my brain comes early on in the game, when Lara discovers a lost world complete with dinosaurs. After killing a few raptors, Lara is ready to press on when the sound of massive footfalls echoes through the chamber. In a scripted sequence in game, a t-rex stalks into view in the distance ahead, turns to look at you and lets out a tremendous roar!
This was a geniune “Oh, s%&t!” moment in the game that I had to share. I immediately brought the game over to a friend’s house, and my friend Bert went through the same scene. When the t-rex appeared, he turned and fled; the timing ended up so we could see Lara running away with the t-rex’s head right behind him. It was an absolutely hilarious moment that made me love the game even more.
There have been about a bazillion sequels to Tomb Raider, most recently a 2013 prequel of sorts, showing a young Lara learning to fight and, well, tomb raid. In 2007, the original Tomb Raider was remade as Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a superior game in all aspects except the t-rex battle! In Anniversary, the initial meet between Lara and the dinosaur is treated through a cutscene.
Wasteland (1988). The same year that Ultima V came out, another ground-breaking computer role-playing game of a very different nature was released: Wasteland.
Set in a post-apocalyptic Southwest United States, the player leads a team of so-called Desert Rangers who serve as peacekeepers in the mutated and changed wasteland. Assigned at the beginning of the game to investigate troubles in the region, the team proceeds across the desert and through a variety of human settlements, building up their skills and their weaponry.
Wasteland is famous for having a vast and detailed world and a well-developed plot. The game also saved changes to the world, so players’ actions would have a permanent impact for better or worse. Related to this, Wasteland is remembered for challenging the players with difficult situations and moral quandries.
In the same vein, combat in Wasteland is damn unforgiving — it is easy to get killed if one ventures too deep into the wilds unprepared. On the other hand, there is a great sense of satisfaction when victorious.
Wasteland directly inspired the popular and gritty Fallout series of games. People like me have always maintained a fondness for the original Wasteland, however, and in 2012 most of the original designers banded together to wage a successful Kickstarter campaign to make a direct sequel! I have, of course, contributed to it, and am looking forward to the finished product.
Roadwar 2000 (1986). As long as I’m on a post-apocalyptic kick, let me mention another quite different member of the genre: Roadwar 2000!
This fantastic strategy game by SSI puts the player in post-apocalyptic America, struggling to build an army of men and vehicles — and maintain them — with the eventual goal of seeking out missing scientists who can provide a cure for the virus that destroyed society.
There are two neat aspects to Roadwar 2000, in my recollection. The first of these is a resource-scrounging and managing challenge in which you travel the country seeking out vehicles, men, and resources, and try and sustain this massive army. It becomes an interesting balance: the larger your force gets, the more fuel and food it needs, and the more likely it is to run afoul of the other roving gangs and mutants in the wastes.
The second aspect is the wonderful turn-based road combat. When you encounter a rival gang, you can choose quick combat or to manage the battle yourself. I quickly developed a fun strategy of using my tractor trailers to bash the bejeezus out of the enemy’s smaller cars while taking a bus loaded with soldiers to provide an automatic weapons fire broadside to more formidable foes. Of course, after you win a battle, you can scrounge the remains of their vehicles to add to your fleet or repair it.
Roadwar 2000 was popular enough to spawn a sequel, Roadwar Europa, in 1987. After that, the series seems to have been forgotten.
Whenever I think about programming projects to undertake, a remake of Roadwar 2000 percolates to the top of the list. I have to decide whether to do Roadwar 2000 or the Adventure Construction Set first…
Katamari Damacy (2004). Here is another game that I almost didn’t play! I walked past the odd box art in the store a number of times with an unconscious shrug. However, my friend Damon made me play the game when I was visiting him one time, and I was immediately hooked!
The backstory of the game is pure Japan. The King of All Cosmos, in a drunken bender, has smashed all of the stars and planets in the sky. Feeling guilty, he sends his 5 cm tall son the Prince to roll up new celestial bodies from stuff on Earth.
Doesn’t really make sense, you say? Well, it isn’t really supposed to. Nevertheless, the game is one of the most unique and absorbing games ever made. Each level involves rolling a “katamari” — a stick ball — to collect items and grow bigger. The katamari must be rolled to a particular size in a particular time limit, or… the King gets mad at you.
The first level involves rolling around inside a house, pickup up stuff like tacks, coins, and pieces of hard candy. In later levels, however, the katamari grows much bigger, until you find yourself rolling up dogs, cats, people, and cars. By the final level, in which you roll up a new moon, you are rolling up houses, skyscrapers, and eventually islands and bigger landmasses!
The game is ridiculously zen to play, aided by the awesome J-pop soundtrack (which I actually keep in my car and play whenever I need a “pick me up.”)
I was obsessed with the original Katamari Damacy and played each level to perfection. This really irked my friend Melissa, who at one point thought she had gotten good enough at the game to challenge me in competitive mode. First game, I beat her easily. Then I gave her a 15-second head start in a 3-minute round. Still beat her easily. Gave her 30-seconds. Still won. She finally won, if I remember correctly, when I gave her a 45-second head start and played using the controller only with one hand. And it was close.
Melissa was irritated, but I pointed out that my easy victory implied that I spend waaaay too much time playing video games. She was unconvinced by my argument.
Katamari became a phenomenon, spawning multiple sequels that are still ongoing. I’ve played We Love Katamari, a direct sequel by the same designer, and an XBox 360 game called Beautiful Katamari. I still go back to play levels again when I need a nice, soothing, nonviolent distraction.
No One Lives Forever (2000). This is the game that inspired me to write this whole damn post!
I started the game first-person shooting at terrorists in a military complex, then four or five hours later I was in a restaurant on the Moon making ravioli for an incoming alien wedding party. And I honestly couldn’t tell you where any significant changes occurred in the intervening time.
When I replayed No One Lives Forever last month, I thought to myself: this game is what Yahtzee was sarcastically talking about! In NOLF, there is such a diversity of missions, settings, and goals that you really never know what to expect next!
NOLF is a 1960s espionage first-person shooter that parodies films like the early Connery-era Bond movies. You play Cate Archer, a junior agent who works for the peacekeeping spy organization UNITY. When a sinister organization called HARM eliminates almost all of UNITY’s senior field operatives, Cate is the only one left who can stop HARM’s sinister plot.
Cate’s adventures take her all over the world in a rapid series of events and catastrophes. One moment you’re providing sniper cover for a U.S. diplomat in Morocco, the next you’re infiltrating a Soviet intelligence agency. Suddenly you’re battling on an airplane in flight and then having a gunfight with HARM agents in freefall! You go from interviewing a Baron ostensibly for a Men’s Magazine to diving to a sunken freighter to get the ship’s log. Later, you’re stowing away on a passenger train in Washington state and then, eventually, shooting at helicopters from a cablecar in the German Alps.
These are only a few of the amazing missions in the game, which truly go to some crazy places! There are 28 missions all told, though admittedly some of them are shorter interludes. But not many.
But the thing that makes the game really stand out is the fantastic writing! HARM has a wonderfully diabolical plot to extort money from the world, with a list of demands hilariously delivered by hand puppet. Cate Archer’s progression from untrusted rookie to first-class agent is handled deftly, giving at the same time a pointed critique of sexist 1960s attitudes in the reactions of her superiors. If you sneak around successfully, you can also listen in to the conversations of the various goons of HARM, which are enlightening and usually hilarious. There are incredibly long cutscenes that develop the plot further between missions; some people have complained that these are overlong, but I wholeheartedly disagree! When I think of how many series of games couldn’t deliver on their plot promises (looking at you Halo and Gears of War), I’m delighted to find a game that can take the time to tell a story.
For a parody game with much humor, the action is incredibly serious. Every weapon and gadget (yes, you get cool spy gadgets) feel potent and worth using, from the tiny 5-shot revolver to the crossbow to the briefcase rocket launcher.
I love love love love No One Lives Forever! I think it may be my favorite game of all time.
Sadly, I suspect that a similar game couldn’t be made today. With the amount of detail that goes into graphics, most games can’t afford to produce a new set of visuals for two dozen different areas of play. No One Lives Forever was created in a fortunate period when graphics were good, but not too good.
Kind of proving my point is the 2002 sequel A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way, which possessed superior gameplay and graphics but was depressingly more limited in scope. The sequel has probably half as many different locations as the original, making it lose much of the James Bond-esque global feel. In 2003, an inferior spinoff called Contract J.A.C.K. was released and, then…
Incredibly, as reported in early 2013, literally nobody knows who owns the rights to NOLF, leaving it in a legal limbo. It seems that Cate Archer has gone deep undercover for the foreseeable future…
Well, that’s my list! Let me know your favorite games, and why, in the comments!